Cochology AKA Shell Collecting

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Walking along the beach picking up seashells and sealife has been enjoyed by millions of people throughout the world. There is nothing more heartwarming then watching a young child run along the beach for hours on end excitedly pointing out all of the fabulous seashells that can be found along the seashore. With so many miles of shorelines throughout the world, all covered with nature's treasures, cochology or collecting sea shells is a popular hobby across the world. .

Great Conchologist Abbott emphasized that conchology is relaxing. "Hobbies are . . . very necessary things for many people, and many depressed, bored or cynical individuals might be satisfied, fulfilled, deeply interested and productive if they had a hobby to use as a medium for self-expression.’ Shells don't talk back to me!' is a statement that I have heard from several professional malacological scientists". Abbott thought that a collector needs to be a little crazy to spend time with shells, but that shells are great therapy, not the root cause of eccentricity.

Conchologists, those people who study and collect shells, almost always study their animal makers as well -- their anatomy, their life history and their habitats. Collecting and studying shells and their makers, the mollusks, is one of the oldest natural history hobbies of man, dating back to the Romans and before -- indeed, a shell collection was preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Aristotle, and then Pliny the Elder were among the first naturalists to write about shells; in fact it was Aristotle who coined the name "Mollusca," meaning "soft-bodied." It has been said that shell collecting is the second most popular collecting hobby, after postage stamps. Whatever the truth of that, the timeless appeal of shells probably owes as much to the infinite variety of molluscan shape, color and pattern as it does to their actual beauty.


Mollusk Habitats


Sandy beaches, especially those with heavy surf, are not productive habitats for mollusks. Only a few agile burrowers such as Donax, Hastula and Bullia can survive in the shifting sands of the surf zone. When a sandy beach has large numbers of shells cast up in the drift line, this indicates the presence of more productive habitats nearby. Beachcombing is the most common method of collecting shells: almost everybody has picked shells from the beach at one time or another, while vacationing on the coast.

Intertidal mud and sand flats have much more diverse communities of mollusks. A close examination of mud flats exposed at low tide can produce many shells not found in any other environment. They are home to various surface-living bivalves such as oysters and burrowing bivalves such as soft shell clams, razor clams, surf clams, Venus clams, cockles, and angel wings. These are preyed upon by carnivorous gastropods including moon snails, murex, whelks and chanks. Other inhabitants of mud and sand flats include herbivorous conchs, scavenging mud snails and deposit feeding ceriths. Mangroves on mud flats are populated by oysters, periwinkles, ceriths, and ellobiids. Being able to recognize the tracks left by crawling or digging mollusks plays an even greater role here than on the sandy beaches. A word of warning, mud can be a deadly trap and it is advisable to find out about the site and the tides. Within reefs and rocky areas live many mollusks that prefer hard substrata. Only a few kinds of mollusks, such as ovulids and coralliophilas, live in direct association with corals, but the coral rubble around living reefs is rich in mollusks because it supports luxuriant growth of algae and encrusting invertebrates on which many gastropods feed. Typical reef-dwelling gastropods include cones, whelks, frog shells, tritons, cowries, abalones, murex, dove shells, top shells and turrids. Bivalves include arks, jewel boxes, limas, mussels, scallops, thorny oysters and giant clams.

Rocky intertidal areas typically support a rich molluscan fauna. While sand and mud is better suited to bivalves, rocky coasts are often the home to many gastropod species. The collector can expect the best finds during the low spring tides. A variety of limpets are usually present, along with chitons, nerites, top shells and periwinkles. They feed on vegetation and sessile invertebrates encrusting the substratum. Muricid snails often occur on intertidal rocks, where they feed on mussels and barnacles.

DREDGING: A dredge usually consists of a special net, which is designed to be pulled by a boat and dragged on the sea bottom. This can be a very productive way of collecting down to 60 m with a small boat. Museums and major institutions with proper research ships can dredge to depths of several kilometers and, in this way, can build up collections of deep sea fauna which is otherwise impossible to obtain.

FISHERMEN: Many mollusks are edible and thus are important to the fishing industry. Specimen shells are often a by-product of this industry.

Cleaning Shells

First of all, the method of cleaning seashells truly depends of the family/specie of shell you want to clean. If the shell is naturally polished and shiny, avoid the use of any material to make it shine more. But some commonly used shell cleaning procedures is described below.

Boiling: Place seashells in a pot, add water, and bring to a boil. Let boil for a few minutes (the more or the big shell. Now grasp shell with gloves or a towel and gently pull out the animal tissue inside. You can use small instrument like dental pick to remove the dead animal from shell.

Freezing: Place seashells in a water-tight bag, cover with water, then place in the freezer (just like you would do to fresh fish). When you are ready to clean them, let the bag thaw at room temperature until completely defrosted. You should be able to grab hold of the animal inside and gently pull it out. Go now to cleaning dead shell specimens.

Bleaching: Soak the seashells in a 50-50 solution of bleach and water. The length of time depends on the type of seashells and the quantity of seashells being cleaned. Just be sure to remove them when the "periostracum" is gone. The periostracum is the flaky, leathery covering that covers most live seashells.

If there are still barnacles and other matter on the seashells, you can use an instrument, such as a dental pick, to chip off the material. Other useful tools are a toothbrush, grill brush, wire brush or a water pick.

Shining: If you want to give your seashells a nice finish, you can wipe them with mineral, paraffin or baby oil.

Shell collection and Storage

There are different types of Shell Collection namely

THE REFERENCE COLLECTION, IT is used to give an overview of what exists in a particular group of mollusks. The subject can be a family, or a geographic area. Identifications and accurate locality data are important. The collection will be used as a reference for new findings, databases, geographic mapping etc

THE AESTHETIC COLLECTION, Some collectors specialize in "beautiful" shells. Quality, exceptional specimens, size, color etc... be worthy of the highest attention.

THE STUDY COLLECTION, Shells brought together for the purpose of study belong in this category. Easy access, research facilities, and labels with field information have priority over beauty.

THE MICRO SHELL COLLECTION, Many people specialize in micro mollusks: shells smaller than 10 mm. A binocular microscope with x 6, x 10, and up to x 60 is needed. The many hours spent over the microscope are pure delight.

As a shell collection grows, it can become impossible to display all the shells. One solution is to house the collection in cabinets with shallow drawers. Each collection is placed in a small box of plastic or card board with its label. Lots are kept in order by their classification, often alphabetized by genus and species within a family. People with large collections often number their lots, and keeps a hand-written catalogue recording the information associated with them, to safeguard against misplacement of specimens and labels. But today, shell collections can be easily computerized with a home computer and a data base program.

Although considerable concern has been expressed in recent years about the possibility of over-collecting shells, the main threat to populations of marine mollusks is habitat destruction. A single storm can cast millions of mollusks to die on the beach and in contrast the activities of shell collectors must be regarded as inconsequential. As long as humans are careful not to damage habitats, their activities are likely to be no more threatening to mollusks populations than those of other predators, providing they take only a few specimens of each species for their own use, and leave any juveniles and egg masses they might encounter to stock the next generation.


  • Seashells of the world, Eiseinbergh
  • Compendium of Seashells, ABBOTT, R. Tucker
  • A History of Shell Collecting, DANCE, Peter S
  • The World's Most Beautiful Seashells, Hill
  • Monographs of the Marine Mollusks of the Tropical Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Volumes 1 - 2 - 3 - Edited by R. Tucker Abbott.

See Also